Starting from a historical and political moment when memory is united with the fantastic and systems of the body’s social inequality are symbolically questioned, in the novel Malasangre (Bad Blood), Michelle Roche Rodríguez tells the story—within the context of vampires—of the veneration of the military that was strengthened for years under Juan Vicente Gómez’s dictatorial government in Venezuela. The story of the masculine hierarchy that never gave women power or a voice is told by characters who briefly build bridges between reality and fiction. As an allegory of the earth and of the dark liquid that originates there, each untitled chapter—organized by Roman numerals—contrasts oil wealth with the deadly dilution of the blood. There, as in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Vampire,” “The fool was stripped to his foolish hide, / (Even as you or I!) / Which she might have seen when she threw him aside— / (But it isn’t on record the lady tried) / So some of him lived but the most of him died— / (Even as you or I!)”.
Claudia Cavallin: The military hegemony of Táchira State [the Venezuelan state where oil was first discovered], begun by Cipriano Castro as the first de facto president, was strengthened by Juan Vicente Gómez’s military dictatorship, which established symbolic rules by which military leaders attained the presidency by “cleansing” the barracks. This symbol of cleansing, or of purity of blood, was established by the dictatorships and consolidated by the marriage agreements that appear in your work. Do you believe that in your novel blood serves as a symbol of uncleanness, rebellion, and disobedience and that the figure of the vampire could be considered, beyond fiction, as a bloody appetite for justice?
Michelle Roche Rodríguez: Yes, and I did it ex profeso. Blood is the symbol that I worked on most vigorously in the novel because I had to make it into a crossroads with various meanings. One meaning, for example, is the one you point out of disobedience and sexuality, which is the vampire metaphor: the obsession with blood as a deviation from the norm; this is the monstrous, properly stated. Another meaning refers to the Gómez family’s nepotism: the fact that the head of state’s relatives—by blood or “by the crotch,” as a joke in that era said—wound up with all the power. This may be taken as an image of other forms of government by the few, which are parasitic ways of ruling, like the members of the PSUV (Venezuelan Socialist Party) today who would monopolize public power. Related to this thought, a third meaning can be identified with extractivist capitalism’s abuse of the land: again, a parasitic relationship. This last meaning has been widely discussed in Spain, where it tends to be compared to other discourses in novels by authors from that country and Latin America. This refers to a new awareness that we have of the indiscriminate use of resources in nature and of the devastating consequences this can have for us. These are only three meanings of this crossroads, but I think there are several others that could be added.
Another topic you refer to is the figure of the vampire—the female vampire, in this case—as if she were a sort of vigilante. In this case I can’t say I did it consciously. I think the reading you’re giving the novel is at work here, and of course it’s a valid reading. I did it, at least consciously, from another place. If I had wanted to build the character of Diana Gutiérrez as a vigilante, I would have emphasized her particular relationship with society and, perhaps, I would have looked for other examples of “vigilantes” who were similar to her in her historical moment. What interested me was telling part of the story of a girl who was isolated because she didn’t conform, as I think can happen with many people who face arbitrary and bleak regimes. She is a vigilante, yes, but she avenges herself. She operates on an individual level: she is an empowered woman who draws strength from her inclination toward blood—which she always believed to be a flaw—to turn against those who hurt her. That’s why, despite everything, Malasangre has a happy ending.
C.C.: It’s true, she is a woman who is empowered and strengthened by blood. Now, collectively, under industrial growth, the centralization of power in Venezuela and the creation of the Military Academy appear in your novel when you include what vampires view as their social context: “We sucked our land’s blood; enraptured, we surrendered our energy, building a mask that we called modernity to inhabit with the shell of our bodies, as lifeless as those of the specters.” Do you think the figures of the body and the earth can be connected and/or can be taken on with the same similarity as that of blood and oil? Oil had to be exploited, consumed, as a vicious [sic] liquid… and years later, Uslar Pietri would say, it had to be sown, right?
M.R.R.: Yes, indeed. Oil, as a blessing and a curse for Venezuelans, is something I spent a great deal of time studying to be able to capture it in Malasangre. And I would tell you more: there is an explicit relationship between the female body and the earth in the novel. The consequences of tyranny, social inequality, and government mismanagement are seen in women’s bodies as well as in the impoverishment of our soil. Women are the ones who, in Venezuela and in most developing countries, bear the brunt of the crisis. Take, for example, what is happening in the Mining Arc or in the Orinoco, an area where indiscriminate extraction takes a heavy toll on the environment. The military or their associates are the ones who manage business there, and it is a zone where women are exposed to violence and prostitution.
C.C.: Of course, military power reigns over all bodies, particularly those of women. In other works, such as Luisa Valenzuela’s The Lizard’s Tail, a fictional character who is inserted into Perón’s government gains strength, so he winds up highlighting, through that which is not history, what certainly happened in a country under a repressive political system. In your vision as a writer, who would be the character in your novel who most directly and with the most detail helps readers from other countries and political contexts understand what happened in Venezuelan history? Why?
M.R.R.: I try to do that through all of my characters. It’s clear in the protagonist and it’s what we’ve discussed in the prior questions, so here I’ll refer to the secondary characters. As a lender, Evaristo Gutiérrez is another symbol of the bloodsucker, but in his interest in clinging to the power structure to make money he can also be identified as an enchufado—someone with connections—or, worse, someone who aspires to be connected—a human type that, unfortunately, we have not yet got rid of in Venezuela. Cecilia Martínez represents the middle class with noble aspirations that is too attached to traditions—symbolized by Catholicism in Malasangre—too blind to see that times change, and not always for the better. As you might already suspect, I’m very fond of the character of Vito Modesto Franklin In the first place, because he may have existed. In Gómez’s day, someone with that name appeared in the society pages, and Fantoches magazine published a profile making fun of their mannerisms. That outed him to me as someone we would call queer today. I think he was the first queer figure in Venezuelan culture. At that time, as the novel says, they were considered “perverted.” As a result, through that character I question what is truly “perverted” in a society: people who suck others’ blood, or people who like people of the same sex? With Modesto—as he prefers to be called—there is something more: this character is, in a way, the border between Venezuela’s exterior and its interior, so it was also useful to present him as someone who was “perverted” by foreign influences. And that is exactly why he attracts the attention of the Gutiérrez Martínezes.
C.C.: And speaking of the characters, I’d like to emphasize something that also represents necessary rebellion: the symbol of the protagonist, as a woman, as malasangre. A rebellion that allows her to break the social stereotypes of submission, distancing herself from the Catholic church, even appealing to a “pervert.” Do you think the idea of freedom that a female vampire takes on—in opposition to everything that was happening in Venezuela—makes the novel into a fictional hero’s tale that encourages us to think that survival is always possible if women become vulnerable in a dictatorial regime from a perspective alien to that of men?
M.R.R: It can be read from that perspective, without a doubt. I’m not interested in heroes’ tales because I think there’s already too much of that and our obsession with epics has greatly damaged Venezuelan culture. What interested me when I wrote the novel was the story of a woman’s empowerment and, along with that story, the empowerment of all of us—men or women—who feel abused by power.
C.C.: Finally, returning to that characteristic that you mention of “the attributes of power without power” with the invention of advisory bodies, government advisors, advisory chambers, in other words, these “hollow bodies”: do you think the weakest, most enriched bodies are refractory images that fight against the natural truth of a human body? What does the figure of the vampiric body symbolize for you under a system of power where “the finest specimens of the bourgeoisie” dominate?
M.R.R: They’re two different questions. Regarding what you point out about human and governmental bodies as weak—or, rather, hollow—the important thing is how they demonstrate the arbitrary nature, the tyranny, and the dictatorship of Gómez’s time and of all times, in Venezuela and everywhere else. Bodies that hunger—for nutrients, blood, or culture—are bodies that long for something, and from there, they can also aspire to freedom. The vampiric body is a hungry body. In Diana Gutiérrez’s case, voraciousness goes beyond blood or eroticism, which is what her description as a “malasangre” or wicked woman alludes to. Freedom is her great aspiration: freedom from her parents and the militaristic government she has grown up under, but she also seeks to free herself from the ideas that keep her tied to these realities. Those “finest specimens of the bourgeoisie” you mention, quoting Malasangre, are like those empty bodies or hollow organisms in the government: people who have everything needed to ensure freedom of thought but who insist on the old ways and, therefore, are empty and incapable of seeing beyond what is in front of them.
Translated by Karen Wooley Martin